Proper Documentation Research Paper

Locating scholarly resources and then citing these references accurately should be the foundation of your own academic and professional writing.

Why is this an ethical issue? Correct documentation

  1. Provides attribution or credit to the original author or creator.
  2. Allows someone to find the documents you cited on their own.
  3. Enables the reader to follow the continuum of research. What important contributions were made before your work and where does your body of research contribute to or add to current knowledge?
  4. Enables others to verify the accuracy and completeness your work. A thorough reference list demonstrates that you are knowledgeable about your field of inquiry.
  5. Communicates transparency, trust and integrity and helps you to avoid plagiarism.


Incorrect Documentation

Ethical research and writing means giving proper attribution and credit to the work of others. In the academic community the ideas, words, and formal or informal publications of others is considered intellectual property. Failing to provide the correct citation may not always be plagiarism. However, if another scholar cannot easily find the research you claim to have consulted, one may reasonably conclude that you either “raided” the reference list of someone else, or that you made up the reference(s) on your own. In either case, you did not actually do the work of reading and analyzing the source material yourself. Citing sources without reading them is considered fraudulent because you are lying about the work you have done.  Finally, you should not blindly trust the conclusions of others.  Always track down and read the original research yourself to make sure that the data is accurate.

Finally, sometimes the expression of someone’s creative work is copyrighted. You may see official copyright or creative commons licensing information on a website or publication indicating that the work is protected. Regardless of whether or not you see an official notice, you should always consider any written, visual, multimedia, or auditory work as protected under copyright law whether or not you see an official trademark or warning.  

Documenting Sources

Documenting means showing where you got source information that's not your own. Remember, a research paper blends your ideas with ideas and information from other sources. Documentation shows the reader what ideas are yours and what information and ideas you've taken from a source to support your point of view.

Why Document?

  • By correctly documenting, you establish your credibility as a writer and researcher. You're letting your reader know that you've consulted experts whose ideas and information back up your own thoughts and ideas. Consequently, you make your viewpoint or argument more believable.
  • When you don't document correctly, your academic integrity can be called into question, because it may seem as though you're passing off others' ideas as your own.
  • If you don't document, you could inadvertently plagiarize, which is grounds for dismissal from college.

Academic Integrity

Academic integrity involves not only acknowledging your sources, but also creating your own ideas. Academic integrity, explained in this way, sounds relatively simple. But the particular applications are a bit more tricky. The most common academic integrity problems that most students encounter are:

  1. relying too heavily on others' information in a research paper
  2. relying too heavily on others' words in a paraphrase or summary
  3. citing and documenting sources incorrectly
  4. relying too heavily on help from other sources

The most egregious violation of academic integrity is when a student uses a writing assignment for more than one course, or when a student "borrows" a paper and passes it off as his or her own work.

What to Document

The basic rule for documentation is: Document any specific ideas, opinions, and facts that are not your own. The only thing you don't have to document is common knowledge.

For example: you do have to document the fact that 103 cities in New York state were originally settled by English settlers because this is a specific fact that is not common knowledge. You do not have to document the information that New York state has places named for English cities, since this is common knowledge.

There are two categories of common knowledge:

  • information that's known to the general public
  • information that is agreed upon by most people in a professional field

 Tip: Sometimes common knowledge can be tricky to define. A good rule is if in doubt, document.

Can You Document Too Much?

If you find yourself needing to document almost every sentence, then it means you have not thought enough about your topic to develop your own ideas. A paper should not be just a collection of others' ideas and facts. Sources should only support or substantiate your ideas.

Tip: The rule of thumb is that whenever you use information from sources you should comment on the information. Your comment should be approximately the same length as the source itself.

Where to Document

You must identify your sources in two places in your research paper:

Citing at the end of the paper: Put your notecards with the source information on them in alphabetical order according to the authors' last names, then follow the correct format for providing the essential source information.

Documenting your sources within the text of your paper:  Most current research papers insert the basic source information inside parentheses within the text of the paper either at the end of the sentence, or group of sentences, that contain the source's information.

Tip: Footnotes are out of date.

Merely documenting paraphrases and summaries at the end of paragraphs leaves your reader confused. Does the documentation refer to the last sentence? the whole paragraph? part of a paragraph? So you also need to show where the source's information starts as well as ends. The easiest way to do this is to use a phrase such as "According to Dr. James Watts. . ." or "Carly Simon maintains that. . . ."


According to the "American Heritage Dictionary," plagiarism means "to steal and use [the ideas and writings of another] as one's own. To appropriate passages or ideas from [another] and use them as one's own."

Plagiarism is a serious offense within the academic community. You plagiarize whether you intend to or not when you don't credit others' ideas within/at the end of your paper. Even though you may have rewritten ideas and information using your own words in a paraphrase or summary, the ideas and information are not yours. You must cite your source.

Read more information about plagiarism.

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